Albania has been through its share of shit: invasions and occupations, Ponzi schemes by its own government, isolation, and more recently getting its name dragged through the mud by Liam Neeson’s particular set of skills. For years, it was the ugly stepsister to Croatia’s Cinderella, but now that it’s hit midnight, Drizella has shoved her glass-slippered foot into the world’s face and is ready for the spotlight. And Gus-Gus aka me is all about it.
So why the fascination with Albania? Well, I’ve heard about it my entire life because it’s part of my genetic makeup. My Gigi’s parents had Albanian heritage, and badda boom badda bing so do I. Growing up in a southwest suburb where everyone practically shits shamrocks, saying I was “part Albanian” made me unique (caveat: not that unique b/c I’m also Irish). As a kid, all I knew about Albania were the words for bread (bük), water (ujë), and butt (bythë) and that, according to my mom who will insist some celeb actually said this, Albanian women are the most beautiful in the world. OBVIOUSLY!
via GIPHY Rita Hayworth: Not actually Albanian.
As a grown-up, I learned more about my great-grandpa’s childhood and solo immigration to America as a teenager, but I still didn’t know much about the country itself (besides being the site of a fake war). On our summer Balkans road trip, El and I decided to change that and drove the entirety of Albania. Here’s what we found…
The drive to Tirana
As you can imagine, the infrastructure in this part of the Balkans isn’t what you’d call “good”, so the most direct route to Tirana from Montenegro was a winding mountain road that took us along the coast. The route eventually turned into a dirt road that cut through tiny Montenegrin villages, fields, and farms. At one point, we needed to put the car in park for sheep crossing. Saying we went through the middle of nowhere to get to the Albanian border would be an understatement; if the car had broken down, we’d be screwed.
Border control was slow moving and confusing. There was some woman who got out of one of the cars and just started assisting the border agent. She took our passports and, along with a sandwich that she seemed to conjure out of nowhere, handed them to the agent. He looked at them, said something in Albanian, and waved us through. At border patrol, sandwiches aren’t the only things that suddenly materialize. While we were waiting, a young Gypsy girl came out of the hills and went up to all of the cars, moaning with her hand out. Once we crossed the border, the line back to Montenegro was woven with gypsies, including a one-legged man playing a mandolin. It was like a scene out of Eurotrip.
There were hills at the start of our drive, but the road became flatter and drier the closer we got to Tirana. The road was dotted with the unfinished stone skeletons of building projects that ran out of money, melon stands, abandoned LAZ-Boys, and one random old man watering the ground with gasoline. There were some restaurants, but the most prevalent business type was by far a car wash. There seemed to be one every hundred feet, which was super convenient because the first thing we observed about Albanians is the frequency with which they pull over their cars. We’d be behind people, and they’d suddenly swerve to the shoulder, which made US suddenly swerve into oncoming traffic. #GoodthingGrampstaughtushowtodrive
If we thought driving in the countryside was bad, Tirana was a whole ‘nuther level of “WHAT THE F**K?!?” The general lack of rules, roundabout death traps, and kids darting into traffic to clean your windshield and then demand a euro made the drive to our hotel just a little stressful. The Hotel, Sar’otel, was very nice though and located close to Skandeberg Square. We dropped off our things, and I went to use the bathroom. I pushed the button on the wall to flush (kinda random), and the toilet did its thing. I got a little confused though when the the toilet KEPT flushing while I washed and dried my hands. I went to look at it, and our toilet had gone the Fast and the Furious on us. It was like a demon had possessed it. I called Elliot into the bathroom, but neither of us could figure out how to stop it. Not only that, but it was super loud and I had to shout over it when I called down to reception. The girl knew exactly what I was talking about and came right up. She grabbed a piece of toilet paper and dug the button out of the wall. Apparently, it always gets stuck and you have to pry it for the toilet to stop flushing. You’d think they’d have that fixed by now.
The main part of the city, Skanderbeg Square, is massive and a little Eastern-bloc looking. There you have the Opera, an equine statue of Skanderbeg, mosque (the majority of Albania is Muslim), a massive flag, and the National Historical Museum. The building has an incredible mosaic on its exterior and is definitely worth a visit. The Museum had some really cool artifacts from Butrint and the paleolithic periods, a Mother Theresa exhibit with her rosary, and plenty of info on Albanian independence. We learned that the national flag is a double-headed Byzantine Eagle, intended as a suck-up move so sons of the Albanian nobility would serve in various posts in the Byzantine Empire. We also read what we could (not much English here) on their national hero, Skanderbeg. He led the resistance against the Ottoman Empire and is revered by Albanians.
What’s fun about Tirana is that they turn ugly Soviet-era architecture into works of beauty. There’s plenty of street art scene decorating the apartment buildings, and there’s an old air raid bunker that’s now a museum. We walked past what’s left (spoiler: it’s not much) of the Emperor Justinian’s Fortress Wall and had a pop to cool off at Kafe Muzeum Komiteti; the cafe was decorated with plenty of embroidered doilies and Albanian knick-knacks. It was just like my great Aunt Esther’s apartment, which made me smile.
We walked to the more hipster part of town, where the house of Enver Hoxha used to live. Read about him; he was horrible. The trendier restaurants and bars are in this part of Tirana. We had “the best cocktail in town” according to the waiter at Tribeca, and I’ll admit the gin/ginger/cucumber concoction was pretty tasty. We also tried a sampler of craft beer at the nearby BrauHaus before heading to dinner. Given Albania’s rise in tourism, it should be no surprise that craft beer is also starting to explode. I smell an investment opp. We had a delicious authentic Albanian dinner at Oda, a tiny restaurant that was decorated like a home. We sat outside and enjoyed our mint/egg rice balls, stuffed peppers, spinach pie, and dense bread with oil, paired with a pretty tasty Albanian red wine. Definitely a must-visit in Tirana, and the stuffed peppers are a must order.
One of my coworkers’ friends is Albanian and did some temp work for us, so I asked him for recommendations of where to go in Albania. One of the spots he suggested was a good midway point between Tirana and Butrint; it also happened to be what he said was “the best beach in Albania”.
The drive from Tirana was just insane. At several points in our trip, the roads/highways just ENDED and we had to detour through little towns where, once again, everyone had to pull over every few seconds. The closer we got to the beach, the crazier it got, and then suddenly we were back on mountainous roads. Our GPS, which hasn’t been updated in probably 7 years, kept telling us to get on the E86, a mythical highway that we could never find. The road we were on, however, took us through a forested and mountainous national park that had hairpin turns every 20 feet. It was the right move to go slower, but the cars in front of us were going SO slow (like 10mph) that we couldn’t get out of first gear. Climbing the mountain became exceptionally difficult, and we were amazed to get through the situation without the car going backwards.
We eventually made it to Dhermi and made a beeline for the beach. Much like Croatia, the beach was pebbly with plenty of polapas for rent, and music was blasting from a nearby food stand. Dhermi’s more of a spot for Albanians to vacation, so it wasn’t very crowded. We had plenty of sun time and swam in some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen. The water was 40 feet deep, and we could still see straight to the bottom. After our dip, we drove to the actual town of Dhermi up in the mountains, and it was a lot more rural than it was by the beach. Apart from a few churches with cemeteries, a pharmacy, and one randomly placed roadside barber, it was pretty much a ghost town. That is, not including the animals. In the five minutes we were there, we had to stop for a herd of goats, a lost goat and its rescue dog, a cow, and a donkey that had a CD strapped to its head. If anyone can explain why farmers have their donkeys wear CD-headbands, I’d love to talk to you.
We actually stopped at a few restaurants to see if they took reservations. I went into one called Harmonia, and when I asked for a menu, a young woman came out from behind the bar, stared at me while biting her finger, and pushed a baby stroller back and forth. It was…odd.
After dinner at a place called Luciano, where the view was spectacular but the food just okay, we had wine back at the hotel and settled in to watch some Albanian television. It was better than I could have expected on account of the TWO channels of Albanian folk music/dancing and the workout channel that showed a woman using a virtual wooden pallet to do her barre exercises. We got an early start the next morning, and unfortunately had to wake up the owner so she could open the gate. Since we couldn’t stay for breakfast, she gave us a bag of bananas and these bruschetta bites that became the official snack of our entire trip. Gotta love that Albanian hospitality!
Corfu (Greece), Ksamil, and Butrint
We originally hadn’t planned on making a pit stop in Greece, but the nearby city of Sarande has a port with frequent ferry service to Corfu. The drive to Sarande took us along the “Albanian Riviera”, and we got to add a pig to our menagerie of “animals we had to stop the car for b/c they were crossing the road”. So far on the trip, we had stopped for cows, sheep, goats, a chicken (so many jokes here), the donkey, and finally, a pig.
Sarande is a pretty bustling beach town, much bigger than Dhermi, and its port is right downtown. We bought our tickets, had our passports checked, our luggage was searched, and finally we backed our car onto the ferry. The ride to Corfu took about an hour and a half and, because of the hour time change, we didn’t get to Greece until 1:30. The ferry ride was pleasant though; the water alone was entertainment enough because of its ink blue color.
We were pretty hungry by the time we docked, so we drove to the Alexandros Taverna and had delicious lunch. In retrospect, it wasn’t our brightest move to have a large Greek meal BEFORE going to the beach… Dassia Beach‘s water was incredible pleasant, if you’re brave enough to walk on the sharp rocks that lead to it. I’m sure there are plenty of better beaches in Corfu, but we were limited to staying near the port. We drove through Old Town before heading back to the port. We had a fantasy draft at 4, so we used our mobile hotspot (Greece is in the EU, so we got our data back) to log onto our computers for the draft. Dedication. And my team STILL sucks.
After a long waiting period and going through customs, we took the ferry back to Sarande and drove to Ksamil, our destination for the night. Once we dodged all the drivers on Albanian beach time, we found our hotel and walked down to the water for dinner at Korali Ksamil. We unfortunately didn’t get to experience the incredible view we read about in reviews on account of it already being dark, but we did enjoy the grilled meatballs stuffed with peppers and cheese, bruschetta, and chicken in tomato sauce pasta that we split. Throughout our time in Albania, everything was stupid cheap. Definitely a good beach vacation spot if you’re on a budget.
Early the next morning, we grabbed some bük and üje for breakfast and hit the road for the ancient ruins of Butrint. Although there wasn’t much English in the places we’d visited up until then, Butrint had plenty of signs with English translations. The ruins were pretty incredible and had a great cross-section of buildings/artifacts from the Hellenistic through Venetian periods. We walked through the same gate as Aeneas, stood in the old amphitheater and temple to Asclepius, saw mosaics that are only unveiled every few years, and spent some time in the small (but great) museum. The whole experience taught us a lot about Butrint’s history, although there’s still much that archaeologists don’t know. Excavations are still ongoing, with the amphitheater only being excavated in the late 20th century. Our last stop before leaving was the outdoor “gift shop” set up inside the park. Local women had hand-crafted items on display, and we bought almost the entire table of one old babushka’d lady. She even gave us a free doily because we spent 80 euros there. Gotta support my people!
So, what’s the verdict?
There’s something special about visiting the land of your ancestors; something in the air just feels different, feels comfortable. Although I joked a lot about the infrastructure and odd sights we encountered, Albania was still beautiful in its own way. I’m grateful that I was able to see so much of it and recommend it to anyone who wants a *different* kind of Balkans trip. Just remember to brake for donkeys…
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